Part coming-of-age story, part road movie, Carreteras Secundarias isn't as corny as it may sound, although the poetic justice of its ending is a bit too tidy. Emilio Martinez-Lazaro directs with a refreshing matter-of-factness, and until that questionable ending, he avoids easy sentiment.

He also juxtaposes two contrasting styles of performance, which results in some hilarious moments. There's straightforward, natural work from the two male leads: Fernando Ramallo as the teenager Felipe, who's moody and mildly rebellious (he covers himself with stick-on tattoos and misbehaves at school), and Antonio Resines as the father Locano, a dignified, decent, and unlucky man with a weakness for wild women and gambling.

The female characters -- especially Locano's two girlfriends -- are a whole different story. Early on we meet the aspiring singer Estrella (Miriam Diaz Aroca), an impossibly perky blonde who dresses in the most garish of '70s fashions (the film is set in 1974) and irritates poor Felipe by calling him "big man." After she and Locano part ways, along comes Paquita (Maribel Verdi), a leggy younger woman with long, luscious dark hair and a raging libido.

At first it seems as if Martinez-Lazaro is making fun of these two lively women. But eventually it becomes clear that he's treating them with an odd mix of affection and fascination, as if they're exotic birds he's drawn to but doesn't quite understand (neither do Locano and Felipe). Whenever the women are on screen, the movie gets a jolt of high-voltage energy worthy of one of Pedro Almodovar's early comedies. (Thursday, February 5, 9:30 p.m.)

-- Michael Mills

"I haven't been to the pictures in quite some time," a befuddled Giles De'Ath (John Hurt) explains to a London multiplex box-office clerk early on in English writer-director Richard Kwietniowski's dull and treacly Love & Death on Long Island. You see, on a whim, widower Giles, a prolific and reclusive Important Writer in his sixties -- we never learn the nature of his work (details, who needs them?) -- decides to attend the cinema, with the intention of seeing a screen adaptation of an E.M. Forster novel. But by accident -- oh, he's easily confused, having been, by his own admission, "out of public life" for a while -- he winds up at Hotpants College II, a teenploitation Animal House knockoff. Realizing his mistake, Giles rises to leave, but at that moment hunk-o-rama actor Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley) appears on screen, and Giles goes all woozy.

Thus begins Giles' obsession with Ronnie, which completely and utterly upends his hermetic existence. First he returns for a repeat viewing of Hotpants College II. Then he ventures to a department store to buy a VCR so that he can rent Ronnie's other movies, but once there he stands staring mutely at a wall of microwaves. He doesn't know what a VCR looks like! A hoot, non? OK, worthy of at least a wry grin? And Kwietniowski does not stop there, leading us through a litany of George Bush-perplexed-by-the-supermarket-scanner-type scenes involving Giles and a TV set, Giles at the video shop, Giles and a cordless phone, Giles and a car's robotic warning-system voice. Kwietniowski evidently considers these bits humorous, but they're just exasperating.

Giles' obsession with Ronnie extends to shoplifting Tiger Beat-esque magazines so he can ogle pictures of the young actor. Giles clips everything Ronnie-related and pastes it into a ledgerlike book on which he has written "Bostockia" in florid script; he rents and repeatedly views Ronnie's handful of grade-Z films, including one entitled Tex-Mex. (Incidentally, the filmmaker captures the innately dopey nature of each exploitation genre he parodies here, and Priestley has a ball acting in these films within the film.)

Giles, intellectualizing/rationalizing his newfound goo-goo-ness, notes that he has "discovered beauty where no one ever thought of looking for it." (Well, many teenage girls already thought to look there.) Anyway, it reaches the point where he can't contain his ardor for Ronnie any longer, and he decides, doggone it, to cast caution to the wind and seek Ronnie out in the Long Island town where he lives -- Giles, you see, now knows everything about his dream boat. Once there he meets and manipulates Ronnie's model-girlfriend Audrey (Fiona Loewi), eventually using her to get to Ronnie, whom he dotes on and deceives and flatters and on and on, ultimately leading up to.... Ah, but that would be telling. At one point Giles looks in the mirror and says, "Dear God, this is ridiculous." Yes, it is, and so is Love & Death on Long Island. ("Death" = De'Ath, you'll note -- just too clever.)

Why, you might ask yourself as you watch this agonizingly insipid film, would an old codger such as Giles, with nary a smidgen of homosexuality in his background (at least none about which we're told) and with a documented history as a bookish shut-in, suddenly go gaga for a teen pinup -- actively, relentlessly, and shamelessly pursuing that not-so-obscure object of his desire halfway across the globe? Let's turn to the film's press notes, wherein Kwietniowski provides an answer. "Love & Death on Long Island is about the power of cinema to tap into our unconscious, in this case with unstoppable consequences. It's the story of a head-on collision of two cultures."

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